Hull-based theatre company Middle Child are making a name for themselves as creators of gig theatre. Theatre that combines original live music with new writing; it’s an immersive experience that many may not have seen before. Their latest offering is ‘The Canary and the Crow’ which made its debut at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this year. Before one of its evening performances, I met with writer and lead performer, Daniel Ward, to discuss the show and the exciting space that gig theatre currently occupies.
In many theatres that you enter, the stage is concealed by a curtain; it’s a decorative barrier which keeps the audience at a distance. But when you take your seat at the Roundabout @ Summerhall to see ‘The Canary and the Crow’, there’s a different kind of atmosphere. Prez 96 who plays ‘The Cage’, hypes up the crowd in the in-the-round theatre, dancing and getting the audience to chant along just as an act would do ahead of a gig. It’s inviting, liberating and charges you up for the evening ahead.
“Gig theatre is quite an exciting space to work in because nobody really understands what it is. I think people understand if you’re going to go and see musical theatre what it is. If you go see a traditional play, or a comedy gig or a music gig, people kind of inherently understand what it is. It’s an exciting space to work in because no one has the answers.”
In Ward’s semi-autobiographical piece, directed by Paul Smith, a black ten-year-old boy secures a scholarship to a prestigious private school. The boy, known as ‘The Bird’ and played by Ward, is thrust into a world where the majority of the students and teachers are white and he is seen as an ‘other’.
“I started writing to music with the idea of two conflicting [types of] music in mind. The classical cultural music verses the grime, jungle hip hop that we used to listen to.” Ward explains. The conflicting music styles described captures this tension where The Bird is at odds and out of step with the majority. As he attempts to adjust, there is a cost as he starts to lose touch with those he grew up with. “In the play, there are the lessons which make up the piece and there are the tracks. Every time I wrote a lesson, I wrote it to a musical track.”
When Middle Child agreed to take on the show, shaping the production and the music was a collaborative process. “Sometimes I could play the music or give an impression of what kind of feel the track should have and then James Brewer [co-composer], would go okay and make something based on that feel or Laurie [actor-musician] may pick up a cello and Nigel [co-composer aka Prez 96] would say I think I get this beat. It was a real ensemble effort where we kept trying things out. It was a lot of fun and trial and error. I’m not trained in music, I can only say it feels like this and then they understood it, that’s all they needed.”
Ward’s first experience of gig theatre was four years ago at the Edinburgh Fringe when he saw ‘Weekend Rockstars’ created by Luke Barnes and Middle Child. “It was on at midnight and it was rock music. They were playing their guitars and were angry, talking about how there was nothing to do in their town. But at the weekend, they’d grab a pint and be able to go out and be rockstars. It wasn’t my experience, but I knew this was how I wanted to tell my story.”
“There’s a lot of gig theatre out there now but Middle Child were one of the first companies that championed it. A music gig appeals to broader audiences while theatre doesn’t. Middle Child’s goal is to look at the elements of a comedy or a music gig and see how we can incorporate this to bring new audiences and younger audiences into the theatre.”
In the opening of the show, Ward takes us back to the experience which inspired its creation. A black guest speaker specifically requests to talk to the BAME (black, asian and minority ethnic) students at Ward’s drama school. A friend of the speaker, also a black actor, had suffered a breakdown and an identity crisis which stemmed from his experience at drama school years before. The speaker was worried that the students in the room were at risk of having something similar happen to them.
The person in question is British actor David Harewood. Originally from Birmingham, Harewood trained at RADA in London where he was one of the very few students from a minority background. He has spoken publicly about his identity crisis and mental health breakdown, most recently in the BBC documentary ‘Psychosis and Me’. This experience planted the seed for ‘The Canary and The Crow’. “When that conversation happened, I was thinking about it and I wanted to write something that acknowledged this weird feeling that I couldn’t quite articulate about my educational experience, both at drama school and at Wilson’s [Ward’s secondary school]. But I didn’t know what it was.”
This weird feeling which is explored in the play is the idea of becoming an ‘acceptable black’. This is the notion that when in the minority, you leave your cultural identity behind to become tolerable to the majority. This feeling of not belonging is one which Ward is more than familiar with. Ward comes from a working-class background and a single parent family household and went to a grammar school where he was surrounded by people who were different to him. “I was always aware that people were very affluent. Wallington is a catchment area of private schools and grammar schools, all in really close proximity to each other. It’s a really nice area and I guess there’s just a lot of wealth around.”
This experience is not just unique to Harewood or Ward, but can be said of anyone who finds themselves in a setting where a certain characteristic or feature places them in the minority. Do you talk a certain way? Is your hair ‘neat’? This all determines whether the majority will warm to you or not. Through the lens of a young boy, Ward touches on the daily confrontations you are likely to face when you don’t quite belong with painful accuracy.
At various points in the play, Ward returns to this analogy where a comparison is drawn between the canary and the crow. The canary sings a pleasing melody, representing that which is ‘acceptable’ and the screeching crow irritates and has a harder time fitting in. This idea originates from fables and can be found in French and Turkish literature, Hebrew texts and even in native American folk tales. “Fables are magical and exist for a reason. Dehumanising the story allows people to have their own interpretations of what it means to them. I didn’t want it to be preachy and I didn’t want it to be definitive. But people should be able to come away and form their own ideas and opinions.” (The YouTube video below is an animation of just one of the Crow and the Canary fables referenced in the show).
Since Ward first finished writing the show, it has travelled a long road before eventually being picked up. “It was a long process of getting rejected, being told that it didn’t have an audience and that it would need to broaden its target demographic. And I thought nahh don’t think so.” The flood of positive responses that the show has already received from people from various backgrounds being able to connect with Ward’s story suggests that he was right to stick to his guns. Do you have any advice for aspiring writers out there? “I would say just get to the end of your play and send it out, get some feedback and just persevere. All it takes is one, one person to say that this is good and I believe in it, to become something and for it do well. Then all the other rejections don’t matter. It’s an industry of rejection and people have to be prepared to deal with that”.
Following its run at the Paines Plough Roundabout @ Summerhall, The Canary and The Crow will embark on a UK tour starting on 7 Sep 2019 at the time of writing.
Photo Credit: © The Other Richard